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Balochistan issue further strains Pak-US ties

February 21, 2012 20:53 IST

Pakistan, which has taken serious exception to the moving of the Balochistan bill in the US Congress, has decided to undertake an international diplomatic offensive to counter the move, says Amir Mir

Just when Washington was desperately trying to repair its estranged relations with Islamabad to ensure the resumption of the suspended NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) supplies through Pakistani land route, another hurdle seems to have cropped up.   

A controversial bill presented in the American House of Representatives by a United States congresswoman calling for the right of self-determination to "the oppressed people of Balochistan" has spoiled all efforts and taken Pak-US ties back to square one.

The contentious bill was introduced by Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congresswoman from California, calling for the Baloch nation's historic right to self-determination and a country of their own. Tabled on February 17, the bill stated that Balochistan is currently divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan with no sovereign rights of its own.

"Historically Balochistan was an independently governed entity known as the Baloch Khanate of Kalat, which came to an end after invasions from both British and Persian armies. An attempt to regain independence in 1947 was crushed by an invasion by Pakistan. Today, Balochistan is rich in natural resources but has been subjugated and exploited by Punjabi and Pashtun elites in Islamabad, leaving Balochistan as the country's poorest province. The Baloch people are subjected to violence and extrajudicial killings in Pakistan".

The bill added that the Baloch people have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country, and therefore, they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status. Rohrabacher, who is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, also held a hearing in the second week of February to discuss the anguish of the people of Balochistan which created a hum in Islamabad and Washington.

"The Baloch, like other nations of people, have an innate right to self-determination," said Dana Rohrabacher, adding that the political and ethnic discrimination they suffer is tragic and made more so because the United States of America is financing and selling arms to their oppressors in Islamabad.

The Pakistan government has strongly reacted to the resolution by condemning it, with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stating that it violates the sovereignty of Pakistan. The country's Foreign Minister Hina Khar described the proposal as an "isolated move by a few individuals", and added it was contrary to the principles of the United Nations charter and international law. "It was aimed at creating distrust between the peoples of the two countries," she said in a statement. "This latest tendentious move will not be allowed to sail through the house by a vast majority of the US congressmen who continue to support friendly relations between the two countries," Hina said, expressing the belief that the US Congress would not pass the bill.

In response to the harsh reaction shown by the Pakistan government, the Obama administration has clearly tried to distance itself from the bill introduced by Dana Rohrabacher, with the US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stating at a press briefing on Feb 19, "We're not seeking to interfere in the internal affairs of Pakistan." The US embassy in Islamabad too issued a statement on Feb 20, saying that the US respected Pakistan's sovereignty and Balochistan was an internal matter of the country. The Obama administration may have distanced itself from the resolution but analysts say there are three factors behind the move.

Firstly, the Republicans are annoyed with Pakistan and its double-dealing in the ongoing war against terror. It all began during General Pervez Musharraf's time and the current army leadership keeps pursuing his policies to date. Tabling a resolution in the US Congress and seeking an independent and sovereign Balochistan could also be a way for the Republicans to embarrass the Democrats and the Obama administration. Whatever their motives, there is a serious implication that a sympathetic ear is available in the United States to the Baloch cause.

The second factor could be America's vested interest in the region. If Balochistan eventually gets independence, the Baloch will be well inclined towards the United States. Given Balochistan's mineral wealth and geostrategic location, it will be advantageous to the Americans.

Thirdly, international lobbying by the Baloch nationalists is finally wielding the desired results, with the issue of human rights violations in Balochistan now becoming an international issue due to their efforts.

Under these circumstances, well-placed western diplomatic circles in Islamabad do not rule out the possibility of the United Nations taking up the Balochistan issue at some stage, thus creating some serious problems for Pakistan. Therefore, taking serious exception to the moving of the Balochistan bill in the US Congress, Pakistan has decided to undertake an international diplomatic offensive to counter the move. Pakistan's missions in the important world capitals have been asked to establish contact with the host governments and explain Islamabad's position and anger regarding the thoughtless act. At the same time, traditional friendly world capitals are being posted pertaining to the position Pakistan has taken on the issue.

Highly-placed foreign office circles in Islamabad believe the resolution on Balochistan is unlikely to be approved by the US House of Representatives because so far it has only been moved in the House. Even in the House, it only has one mover, Dana Rohrabacher, and two co-signers. So far no other lawmaker has backed the Balochistan resolution. Yet, as Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman pointed out, it can do much harm to already strained relations between the United States and Pakistan.

"This kind of move strains the people-to-people and government-to-government ties between the two nations which are already in tatters following the November 26, 2001 killing of 25 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike that targeted two army check posts on the Pak-Afghan border", said Sherry Rehman.

However, to tell the truth, Balochistan is the most meticulously controlled garrison province of Pakistan which has always had a tense relationship with the central government, mainly because of the touchy issues of provincial autonomy and control of mineral resources. The intensity of human-rights abuses in the province, which prompted an American congresswoman to seek an independent Balochistan, can be gauged from the statistics provided by the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

The bodies of at least 241 "missing persons" were recovered from various parts of the province between July 2010 and December 2011, while in the same period at least 188 cases of enforced disappearance were reported -- many of whom turn up dead after being dumped in desolate places, according to the commission's data. For the HRCP, the fact that not even a single individual has been held accountable is a matter of regret.

The US lawmaker's criticism of the human rights situation in Balochistan is in line with the HRCP's contention that the affairs of the province cannot be set right so long as its fate is decided exclusively by the security establishment. A fact-finding HRCP mission to Balochistan between May 4 and 7, 2011, had reported: "Enforced disappearances continue to be a matter of great concern. It has been noted that bodies recovered have had signs of extreme torture. All authority seems to vest with the security forces. The civil administration, elected by the people and meant to represent them, appears to have ceded its powers".

The notoriety of the province for extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances have finally provided people like Dana Rohrabacher with a chance to call for the right of self-determination to "the oppressed people of Balochistan".

Pakistani English newspaper Daily Times rightly observed in its February 18 editorial note titled 'US resolution on Balochistan': "Just like the Osama bin Laden episode (The May 2 Abbottabad raid by US in which bin Laden was killed), the hullabaloo surrounding the US resolution on Balochistan is about sovereignty and not about the real issue. We must focus on why the Baloch are asking for their freedom and how the military establishment is responsible for it. We must revisit the slow genocide that is going on in Balochistan and a political solution must be sought instantly before it is too late".

Amir Mir In Islamabad